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At the Miami Film Festival, a look at a disappearing way of life in the Everglades

Donnie Onstad’s airboat skims to a halt on the sawgrass marsh, and his headlamp surveys the dark swamp for signs of life. He cuts the deafening motor, plunges a spear into the water and, seconds later, examines a pierced and writhing frog.

“Here we are, probably 14 miles from downtown Miami, out in the middle of the Everglades sticking frogs,” Onstad says, a grin forming below his white handlebar mustache, in the opening minutes of the new documentary “Gladesmen: The Last of the Sawgrass Cowboys.” “Best camaraderie in the world right here.”

Onstad belongs to a dwindling culture in the Florida Everglades called the Gladesmen, families of swamp-dwelling men and women who make their living fixing watercraft and serving as airboat tour guides, and surviving off the marshland among alligators, turtles and blue herons. For now, Onstad and fellow Gladesmen can range freely through parts of the Everglades in their roaring, flat-bottomed craft, but not inside Everglades National Park, where a federal law in 2016 banned private airboating, according to the film.

As a result, the Gladesmen’s way of life is disappearing, director David Abel argues in his 80-minute film. The documentary will have its Florida premiere Monday, March 12, at O Cinema Miami Beach as part of the 35th annual Miami Film Festival.

“I wanted people to understand how important the [Gladesmen] way of life is, and at the same time, show that there are ecological consequences for what they’re doing,” says Abel, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Boston Globe environmental reporter whose parents live in Boca Raton.

No stranger to filming documentaries, Abel stood at the finish line of the 2013 Boston Marathon, camera in hand, to profile a runner as bombs detonated steps away. After the resulting short film, “25.7,” the University of Miami invited Abel to film a documentary in South Florida. Abel, a former Palm Beach Post reporter, dove into research on the plight of the Gladesmen.

What he found was a clash between Gladesmen and the National Park Service, tasked with enforcing the private airboat ban and helping the park recover from decades of engineering projects that left the Everglades starved for water. While regulators say airboats can damage sawgrass prairies and disturb wildlife with ear-splitting noise, Abel says the Gladesmen see the ban as a personal attack.

“It was an attack on their culture,” says Abel, whose film includes interviews with the Miccosukee Tribe of Florida and environmental photographer Clyde Butcher. “And there are already all kinds of fundamental problems with the Everglades, with phosphorous pollution from agricultural runoff and now sea-level rise.”

After watching Abel’s documentary, Miami Film Festival president Jaie Laplante says he was struck by the grit and resilience of the Gladesmen families.

“I don’t think their culture is even close to dying off,” Laplante says. “Their language isn’t disappearing, and they’re a strong people. But they’re being asked to give up a really big part of their lifestyle.”

“Gladesmen: The Last of the Sawgrass Cowboys” is one of 11 finalists in the $10,000 Knight Made in MIA Competition, a program begun this year to foster made-in-South-Florida movies, Laplante says. The success of the Miami-set drama “Moonlight,” which won Best Picture at the 2017 Academy Awards, inspired the Knight Foundation-backed contest. Winners will be chosen during an awards-night party at 9:30 p.m. Saturday, March 17, at the Alfred I. Dupont Building (170 NE First St., Miami). Admission to the party is $95.

“ ‘Moonlight’ was a watershed moment, proving that South Florida-shot films could have universal resonance, and be treated as important as any other story in the world,” Laplante says. “So we wanted to put these films under the brightest spotlight.”

“Gladesmen: The Last of the Sawgrass Cowboys” will screen during the 35th annual Miami Film Festival at 6:30 p.m. Monday, March 12, at O Cinema Miami Beach, 500 71st St. Admission is $10-$13 per film, $30-$100 for special events. Call 786-207-1919 or go to MiamiFilmFestival.org.

pvalys@southflorida.com or 954-356-4364

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